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Is the Inauguration of the Ram Temple foreshadowing India's Future?

Don Aguiar Don Aguiar
22 Jan 2024

The changing language of political discourse is perceptible. In the late 1980s, when the Bharatiya Janata Party first became a significant force in Indian politics, the BJP leader, Lal Krishna Advani, said he stood for "positive secularism". Advani argued that the Congress had practised a spurious form of secularism but that his would be a genuine secularism which promised "justice for all and appeasement of none".

Even forty years after Independence, secularism was an ideal to uphold and cherish. So much so that a BJP leader, no less, put himself forward as the true torchbearer of an authentic secu¬larism. However, thirty years later, no prominent BJP or Congress politician wishes to avow secularism publicly. Instead, they want to be known as the truest of Hindus. Thus, in opposing the politics of the ruling regime today, Rahul Gandhi claims that his is the real Hinduism, as opposed to the spurious Hindutva of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Rahul Gandhi's advisers eagerly endorse this public affirmation of loyalty to the Hindu faith and proclaim him to be a "Shiv bhakt" and a "janeu-dhari Hindu".

We have reached full circle. Once, BJP leaders wished to be known as better secularists than their opponents in the Congress. Now, Congress leaders want to be known as more devout Hindus than their opponents in the BJP.

This Hindu fixation in political discourse has dramatically intensified in recent years. The inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya will further strengthen it. The BJP will naturally celebrate it triumphantly. Some other professedly "secular" parties shall also welcome the new temple with equal gusto. These cheerleaders will include those from smaller parties seeking to ingratiate themselves with the Modi-Shah regime.

Devout Hindus cannot bring themself to "celebrate" this new temple. Their reluctance to do so is partly because of what they saw in North India during those bloody years. Thousands of innocent people, mostly Muslims but also quite a few Hindus, lost their lives in the frenzied rioting that accompanied the movement led by Hindutva hordes that led to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya. A visit to the villages of Bhagalpur after the riots there in 1989 saw looms of Muslim weavers and homes of Muslim villagers vandalised by rioters professing allegiance to Hindutva. Only brute powers could craft such violence.

Faithful followers of Hinduism cannot celebrate this new temple because they do not believe that to affirm or proclaim their faith, they must do so in front of or inside a colossal edifice, costing thousands of crores of rupees to build. All four Shankaracharyas have confirmed that they will skip this event as the temple construction work is incomplete. Prime Minister Modi will inaugurate the temple and touch the idols, and then what will the shankaracharyas do? The shankaracharyas are conscious of the dignity of their positions, usurped by Prime Minister Modi, who will perform the consecration ceremony. A student and biographer of Gandhi learned to appreciate how Gandhi did not require a temple of any size or shape to proclaim his devotion to a deity whose name was always in his heart and was on his lips when he died.

The new temple will also symbolise religious triumphalism, a sign that this is becoming ever more a Hindu-first country. Even if a shrine had to be built there for Ram, it did not have to be monumental in scale, and it did not have to seek (and get) the ringing endorsement of the ruling party and the prime minister himself.

If Rabindranath Tagore had been alive today, he would have written a harsher poem on the BJP's Ram temple in Ayodhya. Mahatma Gandhi would have led a movement or sat on a fast to atone for this crime.

Is this massive new edifice being inaugurated this month and Prime Minister Modi taking the place of the Shankaracharyas foreshadowing the country's future? A friend suggests that it shows that India is on the cusp of creating a "Second Republic", committed to a Hindu-first form of politics and policymaking, thus supplanting and superseding the "First Republic" birthed by the Constitution of 1950, and which had sensibly declined to define the State's ethos based on the religious faith of the majority of its citizens.

The past decade's events suggest a determined move in that direction by the ruling party. The State's involvement in the Ram Temple project is a further reinforcement of the idea that India is, above all, a "Hindu" country. With the prime minister leading in the rituals accompanying the first and final rites of the Ayodhya edifice, there is a decidedly monarchical cast to the proceedings.

Prime Minister Modi recently boycotted Maldives because some Maldivian ministers equating him with a clown offended him. He is encouraging Indians not to spend their holidays in that country, and in doing so, he has maintained the tradition of setting an island on fire before Ram returns to Ayodhya.

A contextual comparison with neighbouring countries is helpful here. Pakistan and Bangladesh are self-proclaimed Islamic states where Hindus and Christians are effectively second-class citizens. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are self-proclaimed Buddhist states – it is no accident that both have witnessed state-sponsored violence aimed at minorities. India, which once stood apart in its separation of faith from State, has joined this South-Asian club.

Will making our politics and policymaking more Hindu-centric help India? The study of the post-independence history of other countries presents something other than happy auguries. A cautionary tale of particular relevance recently is that of Sri Lanka.

Our leaders like to boast that India has the fifth-largest economy in the world. However, in terms of indicators that truly matter, such as per capita income, infant mortality, and percentage of women in the workforce, India ranks much lower. Japan, Singapore, and South Korea are Asia's best-performing countries on the overall economic and social development scale. Japan and South Korea are properly democratic, and Singapore is partially so. In all three countries, the presence of religion in politics and public life is highly muted. This striking fact should be sufficient to provide us with a reason to pause even as politicians across the board rush to "celebrate" the inauguration of the grand new temple in Ayodhya.

The closure is without compassion, remorse, or inclusion, which only seeks to whet the Hindu appetite for Kashi, Mathura, and more. The Hindutva project, which faces little effective opposition, demands complete surrender, even of our memories. How many of us will hold out?

Many in India now believe that Modi was elected not to inaugurate temples and the like but to concentrate on ensuring economic and financial progress and development, as had been done by his predecessors. Elections are due later this year. Will the Indian citizens be able to correct this situation this time?

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